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When the Levee is Broken

by TRACEY BRIGGS

On August 27th, the New York Times ran an article entitled, “Levee Needing Costly Repairs Lands Ohio Village on Endangered List.” It went on to explain how Zoar, the village with the failing levee, came to be in such ill-boding circumstances. In 1937, about four miles down the Tuscarawas River that Zoar is situated near in northeast Ohio, the WPA constructed Dover Dam and, as such, had to place a grassy levee around the southern border of Zoar to protect against backflow. But like everything man-made, the levee needs maintenance and repair.

Due to new rules since Hurricane Katrina, however, the U.S. Corps of Engineers, who would be in charge of restoring the levee, is not mandated to do so. Rather, they have to see, of all possible options, which is the most cost effective with the least amount of risk to human danger. With an easily moveable population of 193, the best cost option, then, is to raze the town of its buildings and allow it to flood. Apparently flooding has been frequent as of late as well, with near record water levels topping off in 2005 and again in 2009.

From a dollar and cents view, razing the town and allowing it to flood could offer the best solution. The U.S. Corps of Engineers could acquire the town, provide a settlement to the home and business owners in the area, and demolish the less than eighty units to make way for the eventual backflow from the dam that would create a marshy grasslands.

Some recognize that Zoar needs to be viewed, as it was in the 1930s, as having historical value while others do not. Aaron Smith, a member of the U.S. Corps of Engineers, recognizes the former. It is his opinion that “this levee was really built based on the data we’ve assessed to protect the village based on its historic significance.”

As it is currently, there seems to be some misinformation given to the local population that is blocking support and rally. One is that, in order to repair the levee, local tax dollars will be used. Many, therefore, have expressed with gusto in word and print “not with my tax dollars.” The projected $130 million, however, for the levee would come from federal rather than local or state sources. Another misconception is that, by protecting Zoar from flooding, other areas of the county further down the river would suffer the same plight. By glancing at the U.S. Corps of Engineers’ Zoar Levee and Diversion Dam Safety Modification Study available online, however, it is evident that the areas further downstream are out of the flood path and protected by Dover Dam.

Zoar represents more to this rustbelt area than a tiny village. Having grown up in Dover, which is a neighboring town, Zoar’s influence upon my earlier days had an understated impact with its abundant gardens and little wooden-planked or brick homes. Zoar was a historical village along with several other unusual settlements in the area. Much of the nearby area is Amish country. Schoenbrunn and Gnadenhutten, both Native American missionary settlements, can be found just downstream. The latter tells the tale of the massacre of more than ninety Delaware during the 1780s, which Peter Linebaugh mentions in the closing of his reprinted London Hanged.

Growing up in an economically depressed area of the state, Zoar made it appear that it was more like Lollipop Land than a county loosing all its industry. My father, who worked at one of the many factories that was outsourced overseas, nearly lost his job during the recession of 1983-4. Instead of letting me in on the possible looming struggles, however, we would more often than not take a drive through Zoar where, if in the winter, we would walk along the festively lit historic cabins and drink hot apple cider. If in the summer, we would keep driving on to Atwood Lake that lies just beyond Zoar and fly kites from the levee there.

The Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District, a political subdivision of Ohio that was developed in 1933 to create and implement a plan for flood reduction and water conservation, has a hand to play in this as well. The MWCD serves as a partner to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for flood reduction. Yet, they have not offered any assistance to finding a solution to the pending flood. Moreover, they have been busying themselves with a plan to sell water from Atwood Lake to supply to fracking companies. The MWCD, however, have run into opposition with this plan, even though they own the lake. It would prove beneficial for them to create another lake in Zoar a couple miles downstream all for the taking. This is similar to the possible sale of Dundee Falls located also nearby, though it has not been brought to the attention of the local public. It is to become a garbage dump.

When visiting Zoar over Labor Day weekend, I quickly was able to find a few locals who were willing to share their opinion. At the Zoar Community Association, which to tourists looks like a gift shop. I found two women, an older lady dressed in a costume from the early 1820s who had just finished a tour and another, Jenny Dinato, who was the member of the Association. Neither provided any more information than what could be gleaned from sifting through old newspaper articles. Yet, the nervousness and concern for their home could be detected, though it was stifled by impeccable small town manners. Jenny handed me the card of Jon Elsasser, the president of the Association, who I was told, would be able to speak frankly too.

Elsasser, whose family I located at the restaurant they had just opened two weeks prior, seemed much more optimistic than his quote printed in the New York Times: “Barring some real breakthrough in thinking in how they fix the levee, it may well be cheaper to acquire the town and bulldoze it down, rather than fix the levee.” When talking with me, it was his sentiment that the U.S. Corps of Engineers would determine that the historic value of the town was worth more than the monetary value of repairs. Being a new business owner in the town, I could see his reason for optimism.

Most shocking to discover from Elsasser was that the village of Zoar had not been granted national landmark status, which would have possibly afforded it enough protection to warrant the U.S. Corps of Engineers to act in the interest of preservation. While the buildings have been placed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1969 and again in 1975, this does not offer enough sway to keep them protected from catastrophic flooding. For reasons unknown, application was not made prior on behalf of Zoar for national landmark status. Jon explained that last October the Zoar Community Association did submit application and was denied by the U.S. Department of the Interior, based on the dubious fact that not enough has been published about Zoar to merit such status. Resubmission has been discussed.

When researching my master’s thesis that studied the history of homelessness as a consequence of privatization of land and the enclosure of the commons, I was brought back to Zoar. The study had been inspired by my father, the factory worker. While he did not loose his job during the 1983-4 recession, he would years later. Subsequently, he would loose his home though he worked nearly twenty years overtime on a swing shift. More than ever, it was important to take another drive through Zoar.

Zoar had been a commons. More than the beautiful gardens and the quaint little historic buildings, it was the remnants of the commons that impacted my youth. More than the economic or even the antiquarian value, it is this significance that is of most worth to Tuscarawas County.

In the 1810s, a group of German separatists, later known as Zoarites, had separated from the official German religion but faced harsh persecution in Wurttemburg, including confiscation of their properties and imprisonment. Joseph Bimeler, the leader of the dissenters, decided to emigrate them to the United States.

When the separatists arrived in Philadelphia, they had few resources. The Society of Friends in Philadelphia helped them find work and eventually loaned them the money to buy land and establish the community. The village was named Zoar after the town that Lot escaped to from Sodom and Gamorrah.

Not immediately designed as a common, the villagers struggled to survive the first year. In April of 1819, the group formed the Society of Separatists of Zoar and each member donated his or her property to the community as a whole. In exchange for their work, the society would provide for them equally. Both men and women signed the original document creating the commonist society. They chose as a guiding principle Acts 2:44-47 that declared, “And all that believed were together, and had all things in common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.”

The Separatists enacted the statute, then, stating that all property of the village was to be held in common. The agricultural fields were sown and harvested together by all members of the community. During harvest time, the bakers of the village would freely give out brod-esse, or harvest time meals, at nine in the morning and again at four in the afternoon. Though harvest time was strenuous, it was also filled with, as one account recalls, “talking, laughing, teasing, and lots of good fellowship.” Corn-picking time held the same communal and festive setting, and was even more enjoyed because it coincided with cider-making time. The central gathering place of the village was the Garden of Happiness, which spanned the width of a large city block and boasted a large display of herbs, flowers, and trees under which to rest. Another fundamental aspect of communal Zoar was that it erected a cabin specifically designated for the “many homeless wanderers” that passed through the village. There, transients were freely fed and lodged until they were able to move on.

At the time of Zoar’s founding, it was an atypical village as much of the land in Ohio was being acquired by wealthy landowners. In 1810, ten percent of the property holders in Ohio owned over one-third of all the land. There were few small landholders and geographic mobility was high, suggesting a large landless population. Only roughly half the laboring class in Ohio possessed some sort of property and this percentage would decline by the mid-19th century.

In the decades following the formation of the Zoar commons, the Separatists experienced economic prosperity. Their ancient experiment proved fruitful. The community was almost entirely self-sufficient and exported the surplus. In addition to agriculture, Zoarites also worked in several industries, including flour mills, textiles, a tin shop, cooper, wagon maker, two iron foundries, and several stores. The villagers also busied themselves by contracting to build a seven-mile stretch of the Ohio and Erie Canal. The canal crossed over Zoar’s property and they operated several canal boats.

E.P. Thompson reminds us that agrarian custom was never fact but created by innumerable variables of mores and habits. This is evident in Zoar still today. The Zoarites broke up their egalitarian economic system after outside influences of the industrial revolution beckoned them to ‘modernize.’ Yet, the custom of the commons there still persists. This is evident in nuances. The octagenerian sisters, for instance, who ran the extensive used bookstore in the back of their house, could never manage to charge me the amount marked on the book and usually gave me one for free. Nor could I ever leave without being offered to stay for tea and conversation. Then there was the tavern where, in high school, my friend and I would go to talk and study. The same building that housed the homeless wanderer two centuries prior formed the backdrop for the beginnings of my academic pursuits. And still today the esthetic beauty of the Garden of Happiness, the center of the old commons, is open at all times to wander and take respite.

Fred Miller, President of the Tuscarawas County Historical Society, had this to say to Western Reserve Public Media that filmed a documentary of Zoar’s current plight in April 2012: “It was a community that everybody had all their needs met. They had a place to stay, they had their clothing, they had food and they had to work for it of course but it was one of those kind of examples of American ingenuity that today the people woud say ‘we’re capitalist; we don’t want anything to do with that kind of thing.’

To an area of the state, however, that has lost most of its jobs to outsourcing, where the few remaining opportunities are minium wage, and where health is being threatened with environmental toxification through fracking, we need alternatives. The social contract has been broken. Tuscarawas County needs to maintain what is left of something that worked, of its former community egality and wellness, as an historical lesson. It needs a place that a family can spend time together. It needs to hold on to its historic past with its delightful little wooden-planked and brick buildings. It needs its esthetic gardens. It needs the communal sharing witnessed at the bookstore and at the tavern. It needs its customs. It needs what is more important than the constructs of the building but also what they were built for. It needs its pitching in together and a compact stating such. It needs the promise of community to withstand the floods.

TRACEY BRIGGS lives in Chicago and can be reached at: traceyabriggs@yahoo.com

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